A long time ago I lived in Hereford. I was 19 years old, with a heart full of hopes. My first time away from home. I’d been to my interview at the college dressed ( by my parents still) in a grey flannel suit, pleated skirt, waistcoat, blazer. It was an interview, after all. I needed to be smart. Hereford College of Art for a Foundation Year. School was behind me. I had ‘achieved the rather modest A level results of an E for English, a D for Art and a B for History, but also had the require pass at English and Maths O level, which was all I needed to enter the course. And I had a heart full of dreams.
I loved this place, with its cathedral and slow river running through it. Within weeks of being there I was dressed in Millets dungarees, granddad shirts, Dr Martins and a donkey jacket.
It was all a long time ago. At some point I was taken aside and told that I would never pass the Foundation course, nor achieve a place on a degree course. ( Later, at Exeter College of Art which had been my first choice, and where I had completed two terms, it was loudly pointed out to me that I had been very lucky to secure transfer to Bath Academy as my work was as substandard as my attitude, I would never make it as an illustrator and they were going to throw me out).
On Thursday I joined a small and select group of artists and makers and became a Fellow of Hereford College of Art. This involved wearing a cap and a gown ( for the first time, as I didn’t go to a graduation ceremony at Bath) and making a short speech to the wonderful students who had made it through to the completion of their courses.
Such an honour. And I was a bit nervous. I muttered away at some things, sidetracked myself, got a laugh here and there, but this is, in retrospect, what I should have said:
1. Be brave. You will need all your courage to be an artist in this world.
2. Artists contribute so much to society, are often undervalued. You take your places among a long line of dreamers, many of who are only recognised after their deaths having lived a life of poverty. Many people will ask you to, expect you to, work for free. They will say that what they are offering you is ‘good exposure’. I’m here to tell you that people die of exposure. Value your time- even artists need to eat. You can pick your causes, when you choose to give your skills for free, don’t let others bully you into it for the ‘exposure’.
3. It is possible to earn a living as an artist. Usually this takes a long time. Doing other work to facilitate your move into being a full time artist can be very good. Some choose to keep this balance their whole lives. Treat all the work you do as you treat your creative work, it is all a part of the whole.
4. Check out Arts Emergency. They are there to help.
5. Whatever your discipline make work that makes your soul sing. Speak from the heart. Find your voice and know that your voice is as relevant, as deserving to be heard, as anyone’s. Don’t follow fashion. Create work that excites you.
6. Look. Read, read, read. Stories from near, from far, from long ago, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. And do not ever forget to listen to the voices of others.
7. You will have to learn how to make friends with your monsters. Mine has always been self-doubt. Making the monster your friend is a part of the working process, but this has been one of the hardest things for me to do. I’m learning to dance with my demons, to embrace it as part of how I work.
8. Understand that as you walk out of college, degree in hand, that your learning has only just begun. Every day of your working life you should be learning, with each thing you do, each mark you make.
9. Don’t chase money, or be flattered by this false idol. If you earn enough to feed yourself, your family, house and clothe them and buy materials you need to then spend your time making work, creating. You can always get more money, but once time is spent it’s gone. You can never reclaim those lose minutes, hours, days, years.
10. Do not ever underestimate the power of daydreaming. This is the space where ideas dwell.
11. Whatever you do, do it with a real passion.
12. Be open hearted, open minded. Eyes wide open to the whole world. Believe in the arts as a powerful tool for change, to communicate ideas, to bring about change, to educate, inform, as a harbour for the soul, as an expression of what it is to be human.
And above all question everything, even advice given in good faith. Question, interrogate, read between the lines.
So, that’s what I should have said.
Thank you Hereford College of Art. I hope I can help you to inspire a new generation of makers and dreamers.